Welcome to ‘The ESG Crunch’ with Tom Allport, a Q&A focused on Sustainability & ESG in the Built Environment.
This Q&A series is an opportunity for our Lead ESG & Sustainability Consultant, Tom Allport to discuss all things Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) with some of the leading players and decision-makers in the space. Each week we will ask burning questions centered around the critical role of ESG in shaping business strategies, fostering sustainable innovation, and driving societal impact. This series will provide a platform to share insight into how these leaders are integrating ESG principles into their organisations, navigating challenges, and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to join the ESG & Sustainability industry.
Throughout the lifecycle of a project – whether it’s a new piece of infrastructure being built or a plan to restore vital habitats – AECOM delivers professional services from advisory, planning, design and engineering to programme and construction management. It works in areas including transportation, buildings, water, new energy and the environment, to help solve clients’ complex problems.
How did you find yourself working in the ESG & Sustainability space?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to work in the environment and make a difference. I was inspired by David Attenborough programmes as a child and later got the opportunity to plant acacia trees in Nigeria to halt the spread of the Sahara Desert at age 17.
I studied geography at Southampton University but it was after a masters at Oxford in land use and forestry that I returned to Nigeria to manage a £2.7 million (US$4.3 million) forestry and nature conservation project. After several years working in international development, I returned to the UK to work in sustainable waste management – in what were the early days of the circular economy concept.
Could you share some insights into the ESG & Sustainability priorities at AECOM?
One of our biggest priorities right now is elevating the positive social value impacts of infrastructure development and supporting our clients to collect good data and measure this over time, so that it’s better integrated into business decisions.
Another key priority for us is helping clients and projects to become nature positive. This entails supporting clients to understand how they depend on, engage and interact with nature, what impact their plans or operations have on nature and how they can enhance natural systems through their operations and investments.
With ESG being so broad across industry and so nuanced within Real Estate, what specific focus do you and your team have?
The built environment is responsible for approximately 40% of carbon emissions, so it is essential that we decarbonise our building stock if we are to reach net zero. We have an approach called ScopeX, with an ambition to achieve significant carbon reduction outcomes across our planning, design, construction, and operation and maintenance projects. But we don’t just look at carbon in isolation – we integrate many different complex elements to enable carbon reduction that delivers co-benefits, including nature positive outcomes.
Underlying these priorities is the vast increase in available quantitative data to underpin sustainable decision-making, which is increasingly analysed and presented through digital innovations, including machine learning processes. Ultimately, the benefit is a more integrated understanding of complex interactions and how these can be managed through accessible and decision-useful tools.
What unique challenges and opportunities do you see with ESG in the UK compared to other global regions?
The UK is a global leader in driving the nature positive agenda with regulation and new policy directing infrastructure development to account for, compensate for and develop positive outcomes for nature across the project lifecycle. It means that we will increasingly see that infrastructure or built environment schemes are not just low carbon, but that planning and design integrates positive biodiversity and climate resilience outcomes. It also means that the concept of offsetting is maturing, with biodiversity coming alongside carbon as an approach to mitigate and then reverse any negative environmental impacts. Globally, I think the UK is still ahead in some aspects, including social value and biodiversity, but losing a leadership in the market, particularly around the energy transition. Government and business needs to stay focused on significant emissions reductions, particularly regarding cities and their net zero and technology transition priorities.
Globally there is a skills talent gap in the ESG & Sustainability Real Estate sector, what skills are particularly important when developing and implementing the AECOM ESG Strategy?
Carbon skills are very important – measuring, modelling etc. We have developed a carbon ‘boot camp’ to upskill employees our employees in-house as the recruitment market so tight. We have also made our sustainability core curriculum mandatory, with specific emphasis this year on developing nature solutions and carbon literacy skills.
How have your client’s ESG & Sustainability needs and priorities changed in the last 12-18 months?
There is much more need for our clients to effectively report on their performance. We support them in developing these sustainability disclosures, ensuring they are accurate and meaningful, material to the stakeholder and market pressures the client operates in.
Notably, business relationship with nature has come up the agenda much faster than climate did, especially since the COP 15 biodiversity conference in Montreal last December, prompting significant business risk and process evaluations.
What challenges and opportunities does AECOM have with ESG & Sustainability?
One of our biggest opportunities is in scaling our innovations. We’re currently doing amazing work with our digital tool called EcoUplift, mapping the ecosystem across Scotland. We’re now looking at how can we take that to other areas across the world that urgently need a strong baseline for their engagement with natural systems.
There’s also a big opportunity to at the project investment and development stage, helping clients with initial advisory work around what aspects of a project are likely to have positive, sustainable outcomes for nature and society as a whole, beyond the engineered system
How have you found the market in 2023?
The market is buoyant. We are seeing a lot more legislation around nature, seeing mandatory reporting standards and voluntary reporting coming through strongly, and all these are market drivers. The energy crisis has also spurred innovation, so we’re seeing new infrastructure opportunities around urgent clean energy developments, which require a significant consenting and permitting process, especially carbon capture, hydrogen production and large solar and wind arrays.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring ESG & Sustainability talent in today’s market? Specialise. ESG and sustainability are so big and everyone gets the need for it to be integrated into business as usual. In order to make your mark and impact, you need to know one aspect well in order to forge your credentials as a subject matter expert. Build capability and competence that people can rely on. If you can combine that with understanding business processes and how to make a business case – tying what you want to do back to risk, revenue and returns, that will be a strong proposition for any employer. You need technical skills but you also need to understand how to get the investment you need to make the impact you want.
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